Reflecting Ruel – Turning the Tables

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Friday, May 22nd – Some of our best Magic moments come from the games in which we snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Indeed, when we are on the brink of victory or loss, feelings can overflow and cloud our judgment for good or ill. Today, Olivier Ruel presents some excellent advice on how to turn a loss into a win, and how to ensure you win when you’re ahead in the game…

A game of Magic ends when one player’s life total goes down to 0, or when he must draw but has no cards in his library. This is pretty much the first thing you are taught when learning Magic, but a lot of games don’t end this way. Indeed, anger or deception in a game that seems lost often pushes one player to concede it before it is actually over. However, it is often possible fight against the unavoidable, and turn the tables.

Always Believe in Victory

The two situations in which most people tend to play their worst game is when they face games that seem in their pocket, and, on the opposite side of the coin, when they can’t think of a way out of the hole. This moment of weakness is what you must absolutely avoid when you’re winning, and what you should take advantage of when the game looks the worst. The key to accomplishing a come-back is therefore mental before being technical.

For instance, it is crucial to remain calm when losing. My brother, to use an example with which I’m more familiar, is a slightly better Magic player than I am, but I win a little more than he does. I think that the main difference between us is that I am mentally stronger. Whenever he is land screwed, or when his opponent is excessively lucky, it affects his plays in a negative way. It is very important to stay focused on whatever is going right in the game, or in what could be, and not on what isn’t. If you can’t get yourself to release the pressure during a match, you will lose lucidity, and therefore reversing a situation will become nearly impossible.

The ways to get back in a game are not necessarily on the table or in your hand. In the most difficult games, the solutions to help turn the tables are usually stuck in your deck. Therefore, the key of game reversal is anticipation.

Anticipate the Topdecks

The first step of this anticipation is usually remembering all the cards left in your deck that could help you. Usually, they are direct damage, pump spells, evasive creatures, hasted creatures, or mass removal options. The second step consists of calculating (approximately) how many turns are left in the game.

If you can combine those two factors with a little knowledge in probabilities, you can approximately figure your chances to turn the tables on your opponent.

Let’s take an example:

Opponent: 4 Life, no cards in hand
Crumbling Necropolis, 2 Island, Swamp, Mountain
Parasitic Strix, Tidehollow Strix, Kederekt Creeper, Canyon Minotaur, Plague Beetle

You: 10 Life, no cards in hand
Rupture Spire, 2 Plains, 3 Mountain, 3 Forest
Matca Rioters (3/3), 1/1 Saproling token

Your opponent decides to attack with his two flyers and the 3/3, keeping the 2/3 and the 1/1 in defense. Yes, things look pretty bad. However, when your opponent is low on life, there is often a way to come back into the game. Here’s what you have left in your deck.

Library (21 cards left):

7 Lands
Firewild Borderpost
Akrasan Squire
Wild Nacatl
Nacatl Savage
Matca Rioters
Rhox Brute
Welkin Guide
Sigiled Behemoth
Ridge Rannet
Armillary Sphere
Resounding Thunder
Naya Charm
Gleam of Resistance

You have three options:

A – The 3/3s trade
B – You chumpblock his monster with your little guy
C – You take seven and go down to three

Take a minute to think about the right play before reading what follows.

Before proceeding with the play analysis, let me give you some tips on how to count the probabilities.

– Remove cycling cards from the number of cards left in the deck (Ridge Rannet in the above example), but only if paying the mana for cycling doesn’t keep you from having enough mana to pay for the card you want to draw.

– If every option you have makes you die if your opponent has a certain card (usually a creature removal spell), don’t waste time analyzing that he has one. It only makes the math more complicated. If it’s simply a “he has it or not” situation, focus on what you have to do to win, not what on what he could do to stop you from winning.

So, back to the situation:

Plan A – This may seem the more reasonable and the more logical plan, but it is also the worst. This is the very typical example of why you should remain focused on your game no matter what. If you trigger the automatic pilot when you’re land-screwed and losing, you may make this kind of mistake. If you trade, your only hope of winning sees you need to topdeck Naya Charm, and hope he doesn’t have a spell on top of his deck, and then draw Resounding Thunder.

Probability of winning: 1/20 (probability do draw Charm) x 1/19 (probability to draw Thunder) x 1/2 (probability that he doesn’t draw a spell) = 0.1%

Plan B – You consider what’s left in your deck and realize Welkin Guide would give you the win. Therefore, you chose to block with your smallest guy. Your possibilities to win are either finding the Guide on top of your deck; or drawing Charm, tapping all his guys, then drawing Gleam, Thunder, Squire or Behemoth while he doesn’t draw a spell in the meantime; or drawing Charm THEN drawing Welkin Guide.

Probability of winning: 1/20(probability to draw Welkin Guide) + 1/20 (probability to draw Naya Charm) x 4/19(probability to draw Squire, Behemoth, Thunder or Gleam) x 1/2(probability that he doesn’t draw he spell) +1/20 (probability to draw Charm) x 1/19 (probability to draw Welkin Guide) = 6%

Plan C – Not only can you topdeck the Guide, but also Naya Charm. If you want to have enough damage to deal if you draw one of them, the most simple is still to take the damage. This plan is the one that offers you, by far, the greatest chance to win.

Probability of winning: 1/20 (probability to draw Welkin Guide) + 1/20 (probability to draw Naya Charm) = 10%

I say it’s the best odds you’ll get by far, even though it’s 10%, while Plan B is 6%. The difference may seem small, but it is huge. In a tournament, every single game, no matter the difference of skill level between you and your opponent, the odds of winning are extremely rarely below 30% or above 70%.

What’s the point of metagaming, playtesting your deck in Constructed or the current draft format, basically to practicing in any way, if not to try and gain 1% chance to do better here and there?

Of course, once in a while, it is possible to break a format, but 99.9% of the time, the things that help you win are all those little details combined, one after another, helping you grab a few percentage points to beat any given opponent.

In order to put the odds on your side, it is therefore very important to intimately know what’s in your deck. Of course, you won’t be able to learn your entire deck by heart, but at least try to memorize possible game-breakers, direct damage, and removal spells (here Resounding Thunder, Naya Charm, Welkin Guide, and, at a lower level. Gleam of Resistance).

How Can I Lose?

On the opposite side of the coin, some games seem like they absolutely can’t be lost, when your opponent probably still has a small chance to make a comeback.

Whenever a game seems very close to ending, it is very important to think about the cards that could kill you. Only then can you adapt your plays (if necessary) to your opponent’s threats. In Constructed, the limited number of archetypes in a given format, and the restricted number of playables, makes threats globally predictable.

In Limited, though, it is hard, even with a very good knowledge of a format, to think of every card to which you could lose. In general, they are pump spells, direct damage spells, and rares. Here are a few questions you need to ask yourself to avoid traps.

A – What have I seen in the previous game(s)?
It is legal to take notes during a match, so feel free to write down your opponent’s key cards. Not necessarily every single card, but at least cards you can play around before they touch the table. These cards are rarely creatures. If you noted that in game 1 your opponent is playing Gleam of Resistance and Volcanic Fallout, it will help you adapt your plays until the end of the match.

B – What have I seen in the draft?
You can obviously not remember every single card you’ve passed in the 24 packs you’ve been holding, but pay attention to the tricks and removal spells you are passing, and you should be able to remember them naturally when needed. You opponent attacks you with two creatures and WG untapped. Have you passed Might of Alara? Sigil Blessing? Resounding Roar? If you have, focus on those during the draft, and they should come back to your mind at the right moment.

C-What color is he?
Against a RB deck, for instance, you will have to play much attention to direct damage and hasted creatures. If you’re on four life, and you have four creatures to your opponent’s empty board, it may seem like you are going to win the game no matter what. But what if he draws Igneous Pouncer? If you think you have the game no matter what, keep your smallest dude in defense. He’s WG? Try and push him to trade his guys before he draws Gleam or Welkin Guide. His lands tell you what cards he could topdeck. If you can think of cards that can kill you, you should be able to play around them.

When you ask people about reading in a Magic game, they will tell you about the opponent’s face, about the way he looks at the cards in his hand, about his attitude in general. It is all true, but the best reading in Magic is the one that includes the libraries. It may seem to be quite a paradox, as you never know what’s coming on top, but when the game is close to coming to an end, and the visible pieces of information (hands and board) don’t help anymore, you must not take hasty decisions. Take time to consider how the next draw steps could affect the game.

It is a lot more complex than it seems, but if you can do so, you game and your results will considerably improve.

Until next week!